MST3K: At least my writing isn’t that bad

I have recently started watching the new series of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 (MST3K) on Netflix and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny and aware, I love Felicia Day, they have some great guests, and the robots are adorable. I would like to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that I could be even half as funny as the writers for that show.

mst3k-netflix-season-11-cast

That said, the whole premise of the show is to watch really bad old movies, and boy are they bad. The acting is bad, the ‘monsters’ are bad, and the writing… I have no idea how they got away with so much crap back in the day! Sure, the amusing banter from Jonah and the robots is a good distraction, but not enough to make me forget just how badly made these old movies are, even disregarding all the limitations of the time-periods.

For one, there’s a whole lot of sexism and either casual racism or simply the whole erasure of race (such as the whole ‘only white people go to space’ yuckiness that has pervaded scifi for far too long!) going on. And in general, all characters tend to be paper-thin, with no backstory or deeper motivation or anything. The bad acting doesn’t help either (even Christopher Plummer manages to look bad! Though I blame the writing for that one – episode 6 Starcrash if you want to see for yourself).

Then there’s the plot. I get it, budgets were tight and monsters are expensive, so you can’t show them for very long. And yes, people were more used to a slower pace back then. But oh my gods things move so slow! Nothing happens for minutes, except people walking, or random scenery, or SPACE (which I guess was an impressive thing to film back then, even as fake as it possibly could be). They often blatantly reuse footage to stretch things out even further. There’s no sense of continuity whatsoever, with the plot either dwelling on something too long or skipping something altogether, with no apparent in-between. In short, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I could go on like this for quite some time, but you’re better off just checking out an episode or ten for yourself. My main take-away from watching is not, as you might think: “Oh my gods there is so much bad writing out there!” – although the thought did cross my mind. No, it’s that people believed in this shitty content enough to invest lots of time and money into it. These things got made, and released, and people might have even watched them in a non-mocking way.

Surely we can do one better? If we believe, and put the time and effort in, we can surely make a story better than these guys got away with back in the day. And if they could get other people to invest in it too, there’s hope for everyone. So, I would suggest that if you’re feeling down about your creative efforts, go look at a terrible movie (with or without amusing MST3K commentary) or read a terrible story. Not only might you gain some tips on what not to do, but it will hopefully give you renewed vigour and confidence in your own work. Just don’t use MST3K and other suchlike things as procrastination, because really you (and I) should be writing!

Writing podcasts: The good, the also good, and the different good

As I stated in my previous blog post, I haven’t been writing lately (though I did write a short story on a whim not too long ago, inspired by a submission theme, and naturally it got rejected because I didn’t start writing until four days before the deadline), but I have been listening.

To be a writer, you have to write (obviously) and read, but also to listen and observe human interaction. Sure, fiction shouldn’t be exactly like real life (in fact, fiction needs to make more sense than real life does at the moment), but getting a sense of real human interaction, and how to describe it, can add an important layer of authenticity to your work.

Another thing to listen to is advice. Yes, all advice is subjective, and every writer has to find what works for them, and you should never follow any professional writer’s advice without question, even if it is J.K. Rowling or whoever your literary god may be. In fact, a good writer will tell you to take their advice with a grain of salt precisely because it is all so subjective and everyone has their own process. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things worth saying. And if you’re lucky, they’ll share their wisdoms on a podcast. Here are a few I’ve listened to that I think are helpful, entertaining, or a good wake-up call. They’re all available to listen to for free on iTunes and via the handy-dandy links I’ve included.

The Writers Panel

Admittedly, Ben Blacker talks more to screen/TV writers and even comic writers than he does to novel writers, and you might be able to learn more about the actual craft of writing simply by listening to the superb Thrilling Adventure Hour, which he co-wrote with Ben Acker, but this podcast offers a lot of insight into the ways in which people get into writing, their different processes, writing with other people, and how the things you love get made. Seriously, just look through the long list of podcasts and find the writers/producers/directors of the shows that you love, and see what they have to say for themselves. Guaranteed inspiration.

This is also a good podcast if you want to get into screen/TV writing and are happy/able to move to sunny California to pursue your dreams. It has lots of hopefully helpful advice about writers rooms, etc. An alternative to this would be the Scriptnotes podcast, which talks more about the technicalities of screenplay writing.

I should be writing

Well, the name really says it all. Mur Lafferty is not only an excellent writer (I can highly recommend the Shambling Guides series for you fantasy/Buffy/mystery fans out there), but she’s also a well-seasoned podcast host, yet she still manages to keep her advice fresh. She usually does a special NaNoWriMo podcast (or series of podcasts) and generally just talks about the craft of writing, her own insecurities and problems, and she does some great, insightful interviews with writers in various career stages that may make you think, “Hey, I could be like that”. And of course, she always reminds you that you should be writing!

Ditch diggers

Another podcast by Mur Lafferty, but this time she’s joined by Matt Effin’ Wallace (yes, it’s a sweary podcast, so beware). Together, they are the ditch diggers, coming to you live from various rooms in Morgan Freeman’s expansive estate (allegedly). Unlike ‘I should be writing’, this podcast covers the practicalities of writing as a job. So, if you see writing as a hobby, stick to the previous podcast, but if you’re serious about making writing into a career, whether fulltime or not, then this is the podcast for you. Together, they offer lots of tough-love advice and again some amazing interviews with other writers from various different backgrounds.

There are many other podcasts on writing out there, for example Print Run if you want to hear about publishing from the perspective of agents/authors, and I would also recommend listening to fiction podcasts to get a sense of a good story in another medium – you might discover something new about writing that you wouldn’t have picked up from reading a book. My personal favourites are the above mentioned Thrilling Adventure Hour, as well as Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown and Within the Wires. There’s also Escape Artists and its various podcasts, which are open to submissions if you would like the chance to see your story audio-fied.

In short, there are many different podcasts out there to inspire, advise and otherwise give you fresh perspectives on this wacky endeavour called writing. So if you run, or commute, or have some other 30-minute/1-hour time window every once in a while that could do to be filled with some random people talking at you, why not give one of these podcasts a shot?

Short post on a short-short story

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Dear Damsels (for some reason I keep trying to write Dead Damsels, hmmm), they are a collective of kickass ladies who publish all sorts of short stories (up to 800 words, can be fiction or not) under a monthly theme. If you are a female writer starting out with short story submissions, it’s a great place to go and get inspired, and write about a given concept in your own unique way.

I am very happy to report that on this amazingly sunny Sunday, my short story Same Old has been chosen to kick off May’s theme of Tradition on the site. Please check it out, and also check out some cool stories under last month’s theme of language, sign up to the newsletter, etc. As always, I would love to get some feedback, on the story, my bio, my pen name, whatever you want to comment on. Now I’m off to enjoy the sunshine again with Mur Lafferty’s Ghost Train to New Orleans as company; hope it’s sunny wherever you are! You can expect a bigger blog post (on Lord of the Rings, but not of the same length) some less sunny day in the not too distant future.

Happy writing!

Travel inspiration

Write what you know

To write a lot, read a lot

Observe people and how they speak

There is a lot of ‘age-old’ writing advice, little nuggets that in reality are entirely dependent upon the writer’s personality, the kind of stories they want to tell, and probably also the weather. One of these pieces of advice writers are often given is to travel. While I think that’s a great (though costly) suggestion, and I’ve certainly enriched my stories by traveling to places that have then been featured in them, I would like to mention some possible addenda to this advice.

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Stories create (imaginary) travel, travel creates stories

When people think of travel, they are prone to think of a vacation, a brief trip to a new place. Often this includes highlights: famous monuments, buildings etc., popular shopping locations maybe, and of course the very best (touristy-oriented) local foods. While these kinds of trips may give you some interesting places to describe, and some much-needed relaxation to recharge the creative batteries, I don’t believe they are the kind of travelling that enriches a writer’s imagination.

The advice to travel is closely related to the advice to observe people. The kind of travel that gives writers new insights, that really can make a huge difference (and has, if you look at some famous writers’ biographies), is the kind that allows you to observe local people in their everyday lives. Not just the way they speak, which might be entirely foreign, but the little things that you never realise could be done differently until you view them from an outside perspective, as an anthropologist of sorts. Just try to explain your Christmas traditions to someone from a different country; even Americans and Brits, cultures thought to be so close together, will need to do some ‘translating’. People from different states/provinces might even give different answers. From an outside perspective, you can see and write down things that you would otherwise have thought needed no comment. This works even if your stories take place on a different planet.

The other benefit of traveling is to get to know yourself better. By staying to the safe, popular options, you are less likely to gain new insights. Learning about local differences, talking to new people, maybe overcoming some social anxiety (or that could just be me), can teach you a lot about yourself, and help you grow as a person. There’s a reason why so many European students/18-year-olds take a ‘gap year’ after school to travel around.

Not everyone (hardly anyone, in fact) can afford to move to a different continent and live there for a year, soaking in the atmosphere, the local ways of doing things, the realities of what it means to be a local in an entirely foreign culture. Sure, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert on a small budget, but she still had a budget and didn’t have to worry much about what she was leaving behind. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for more settled people. All it takes is to go sit in a pub or cafe frequented by locals, instead of visiting the Louvre. Sit all day, chat to people, really soak up the foreign-ness of where you are. You may not need to even leave the country to do this, just going a few towns past your ‘known world’ can be enough to expose yourself to different ways of speaking, doing, and seeing the world.

For the best results, you’d need to spend a substantial amount of time in a place, to ‘go native’ as anthropologists say. What also may work is to go some place outside your comfort/home zone frequently, to spend your weekends discovering new local watering holes in places all around you. But you won’t know what kind of inspiration you’re looking for, what kind of insights you might find, until you try.

So this holiday season, when/if you have some time off, why not try an experiment? Take your notebook, go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a place that a lot of locals hang out in, and just observe. You could even take your laptop and profit from your instant imagination-boost. As the age-old advice says, it can only make your writing better.

evening-kerry-pub-sceneIn a way, everything you do can make you a better writer, as long as you are observant enough to notice what, why and how you are doing it.

 

When Inspiration Strikes

The other day I was lying in bed, about to fall asleep, when the perfect start to my novel just popped into my head. Now it has taken me ages to come up with something, so of course I got up and wrote it down, destroying any chances of a good night’s sleep in the process. But that’s a story for another blog.

In this post, I want to talk about these moments, in bed or in the shower or out on a walk (and always away from writing equipment), when things just pop into your head. Some call it a strike of inspiration, or their muse communicating with them, but really it is your brain working efficiently.

Eureka! Not just something to shout when an idea hits you out of nowhere, but also an amazing TV show.

Since we can’t capture inspiration in a controlled experimental environment, there are a lot of things we still don’t know about what happens in the brain when we get inspired. So if anybody tells you they can ‘switch on’ creativity through brain stimulation, they’re trying to sell you something. What we do know through simplified experiments is that a lot of different brain areas need to be synced-up for inspiration to be able to strike. And I’m not talking about just the right hemisphere either, which is a common myth, I’m talking about areas all over the brain.

Scientists have hypothesised that the reason moments of inspiration occur when you’re away from your computer is due to the Default Mode Network. This network of brain areas becomes active while we’re at rest, so specifically while we’re not thinking about anything in particular. Like when we’re about to fall asleep. And since the network extends all over the brain, it is ideally suited for combining different types of processes and creating new connections. The result; inspiration instead of rest.

The most important thing to note is that inspiration does not occur in a vacuum. Inspiration relies on a lot of experience, expertise and active unconscious/semi-conscious processing. While the idea of a muse is appealing and can be helpful for visualisation, in reality inspiration is not the result of genius or divine intervention, but instead heavily dependent upon our own abilities. So the next time you’re wishing for inspiration to strike, just remember that inspiration (and your brain) needs something to work with, so keep working, thinking about writing (or whatever else you may want to do), practicing, and just going about your daily activities, because it’s the only way you might be able to open yourself up to ‘spontaneous’ inspiration.

Jack London said it best: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

NB: These views and thoughts are my own, creativity is not my particular area of expertise, so feel free to take everything with a pinch of salt.